“The Poet is a kinsman in the clouds, Who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day; But on the ground, among the hooting crowds, He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.” – Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
Neoliberal fascism has a sense of #poetry, an ambiguous coherence that is hard to spot at a first glance. It requires patience and movement to see and grasp its ideological reach down in our souls, to recognize it and finally, to put out its elegant flames. It is similar to a camera having a hard time focusing on an object that is too close. Ultimately the camera needs to move back and forth to pinpoint a distance from which it can clearly focus on the object. Likewise, we need to move within an ideological space of alienation and familiarity with(in) ourselves to see the object(s) and practice(s) that turn us into the subjects of neoliberal fascist poetry. Resistance becomes akin to a word in a stanza getting up and leaving the text. The poetry of neoliberal fascism trusts that we do not have agency on our own, that we are written down, together, on a piece of paper. We cannot just stand up and leave, or try to change the poem. It is poetry written in bureaucratic practices that prevent agency or efficacy, that internalize neoliberal fascism’s sense of coherence—becoming one with the poet and own the poem so much so that they are ready to give their lives for it. Through the #occupy movements and the Arab Spring the world has witnessed the dialectic; across difference that encompasses Hardt and Negri’s multitudes. Those who display their bodies on the streets in forms of solidarity and resistance are starting to focus on the poem and the poet, and to reject both their position on the page and the one who placed them there.
This article is concerned with reading the events that took place in #turkey in the summer of 2013 from a rhetorical criticism perspective. I start by providing a background on Turkey, recent events, and the connection between #neoliberalism and fascism. I use the metaphor of poetry to read through the symbolism of the context that started the movement in Gezi Park, an action I hope will help provide another perspective towards the underlying discursive and social practices that fuel the different manifestations of the unison between neoliberalism and fascism. In this article, I refer to these underlying discursive and social practices as indexicals, and I aim to provide one reading of the indexicals to open up a discursive space in which other readings are possible. The article concludes by discussing the utility of reimagining social events as texts and by suggesting that the adoption of such rhetorical criticism has the potential to open up discursive spaces for mutual deliberation between different sides during contentious social events, instead of leading to intractability or communication breakdown. I hope to show that providing tools for interpretation, instead of encouraging fixed ideological positions, enables further agency to engage systems of violence.
A sudden flash of poetry alarmed the protestors in Turkey. A poem meant to turn the public into subjects of militarism and consumption became so apparent that there was a sudden shift of perspective, instant yet fleeting, a sense of clear focus on the problem. The multitudes gathered and protested. In the summer of 2013, Turkey witnessed arguably the largest social movement in its history, now known as the #gezi park protests or Gezi movement. The movement lasted the entire summer and is still sustained months later in different capacities. At the beginning, there was a clear focus and that sense ignited the whole Gezi movement; it was ethereal. Yet the focus has become blurry. Those who want to keep resistance alive in Turkey must reengage the movement toward clarity. They must focus on the image that sparked the movement in order to define the problem as it appears today.
The problem the Gezi movement confronts is ideology – the marriage of neoliberalism and fascism in poetic unison. The flashpoint of these protests was an uprising against this unison made manifest in the “shopping mall project.” I refer to the planned shopping mall at Gezi as neoliberal fascist poetry because of the symbolism it evokes through the cultural narratives it taps into and series behaviors it promotes as a result. However, the protests to save a park from becoming a mall expanded their focus to other manifestations of this unison, such as majoritarianism, ethnocentrism, discursive fantasies of Turkish neo-cons to promote strangeness and their campaign of internal colonization against a ‘strange’ crowd, sexism, heterosexism, among others.
What was supposed to happen at Gezi Park? An old, rotten and demolished 19th Century military barracks was going to be rebuilt and turned into a shopping mall at the expense of public green space. In other words, the state was going to fuse militarism and neoliberalism – a show of arrogance achieved in mastery over nature and public space through a gendered act (of destruction) for the promotion of class-exclusive consumerism. Not a mere juxtaposition, but a fusion of military architecture and a shopping mall orchestrated through the seizure of a public space generally associated with leftist protests; an act nothing short of poetry. It is poetry not only because all these actions manage to raise questions about the nature of a social self and fragmentation in Turkish society through metaphorical use of space, claiming, building, and destroying—much in the way poetry often raises questions through metaphorical speech acts of questioning, claiming, blaming, defending, etc.—but also because poetry aims to challenge the public memory of symbols by associating them with different meanings. The Turkish PM’s desire to build a mosque in Taksim square aims to redefine a symbol/space of socialist solidarity and protest. Just as poetry takes common vocabularies, bends and challenges their meanings through ambiguity or by juxtaposing them with different narratives.
And like poetry, while we might have an intuitive sense of what the text means at a first glance, it takes some careful picking apart to dissect and reinterpret different layers of meaning it might possess. This is the case of Gezi Park protests. At a first glance, the protestors had an intuitive sense of neoliberalism and fascism; how they fused together at the intersection of gender and class; how these intersections gave rise to that moment and provided the initial spark. Fragmented alliances and time pulled the protests in different directions. Instead of fighting the core of the problem, protestors began discussing its different manifestations at the peripheries. These issues, while important, do not address where all the roads lead, in a manner of speaking and the Gezi movement must connect them back to the core problem.
Seeing how the neoliberal fascist ideology manifested itself in the shopping mall project at Gezi Park as poetry is necessary. It helps us see not only the physical but also the symbolic aspects of actions and rhetoric; it helps us acknowledge the complexity of what and how we understand “the problem”; and it gives us space to “read” the poetry, that is to engage with the different layers of symbolism and offer different explanations/interpretations of whatever we see in front of us.
On Fascism and Neoliberalism
Fascism and neoliberalism have a number of commonalities that bring them together, such as their historical context, their habit of objectifying the public, their convention of marginalizing economically and ideologically unviable/inefficient objects, and their dependency on exploitation of those who are efficient and viable. Woodley (2013) suggests, however, that neoliberalism and fascism do not merely “go together”, but are an almost perfect symbiosis and existentially interdependent.
This interdependence is the result of a balancing act fascist politics need to establish for their survival. Fascism, according to Woodley, needs mediate a tension between the past and the present. While ideologically fascist politics need to pervert a sense of a nostalgic past, they also need to establish a discursive basis that answers contemporary concerns and, moreover, provides a sense of future that people can resonate with—in terms of economic and psychological sense of security, belonging and identity. The basis of fascist politics, therefore, is a balancing of this tension between past values and the current context.
To make this balance work, fascist politics needs the support of the middle class, which it acquires through the practices of fusing the corporations with the state. Woodley (2013) suggests that fusion happens especially through legal structures and, furthermore, common structures of exploitation: “through fascism, corporations become the beneficiaries of the legal-administrative authority of the state, monopolizing rights as individuals and smaller economic units are reduced to the status of ‘fiduciaries’—that is, subjects possessing duties, entrusted with property or power solely for the benefit of superiors” (21). As such, at the intersection of ideological and economic exploitation, there is a “link between private economic power and cultural racism” and this link is “two self-reinforcing narratives the in the discursive organization of capitalism” (Woodley 2013, 23).
Needless to say, just as neoliberalism does not have any “ethical language for recognizing politics outside the realm of the market, for controlling market excess, or for challenging the underlying tenets of a growing authoritarianism” (Giroux, 2005: 12-13), fascism also lacks such grammar towards “other” ideologies or ways of conducting politics. The “other” in fascism exists, at best, to be contained and, at worst, to be destroyed. Of course, at first this seems to contradict the ethical rhetoric fascist ideology wants to claim via its reference to the nostalgic and to the traditional. At this point, however, fascist ideological discourse runs a double standard, where it judges the “other” by its own standards and deems punishment worthy since they do not match.
The aforementioned discursive organization turns objects into subjects of neoliberal fascism—subjects who have interpellated, in an Althusserian sense, the ideological structure, as well as lack of ethical language, of fascism and neoliberalism and who can enforce these “norms” in their own environments (Cutler 2011, 49) to “others” worthy of punishment. The sense of power the subject receives through privatization—both economic and ideological—is the sustenance of neoliberal fascism and is the basis of how fascism is existentially interdependent with neoliberalism.
Consequently, through privatization, subjects of fascism acquire both economic and ideological authority to impose the discursive fusion that is neoliberal fascism—backed both by the lack of ethical grammar (and, therefore, self regulation) and by the legal basis for corruption the state provides for this fusion. Neoliberalism and fascism, therefore, are existentially interdependent, instead of being merely juxtaposed as a result of some historical contingency.
On Poetry and Interpretation
Semantics, semiotics and pragmatics of what the Turkish state invokes through the construction of a shopping mall inside military barracks is yet another local expression of the global neoliberal fascist trend. While it is easy to dismiss such a manifestation point to “yet another” example (since there are literally tens of thousands around the world), the dialectical emergence of the protests are also part of a global trend, and therefore, crown this particular exemplar of global neoliberal fascism as a flashpoint—as an important mark that resulted in one of the most important #social movements Turkey has ever seen, if not the most important. It is vital for a healthy analysis to set aside cultural clichés or historical schemas about who Turkey is or what Turkey was. Unfortunately, referring to such historical battles are not uncommon and not unpopular; there is a trend of attributing the protests simply to the rise of secular youth against Islamo-fascist politics, or Kemalist ultra-nationalists versus liberals (see: countless op-eds from respectable journals/newspapers). These oversimplifications, or escapes from complexity, only add to the problem at hand and contribute to prejudice, sustained hate and lack of understanding different sides possess against one another.
Instead, to capture as much complexity as possible and to provide space for potential, and perhaps different, inter-understandings among different interpretations of the events, I use the metaphor of poetry to talk without their consent. The purpose is to take advantage of the lexical and semantic ambiguity poetry provides and to create opportunities for different interpretations and encourage deliberation that softens the other. It goes without saying that readings are different, political and purposeful. By offering a reading, my aim is to open the possibility of readings (multiple), to argue against the fixed nature many came to attribute to the actions of the state and protestors. I am well aware that by framing the state’s actions as neoliberal fascism, I already provide a certain interpretation. Surely, wherever there is a reading, there is a reader; but more importantly, there are readers. Again, the purpose is to take the reader into a rather fluid and amorphous space where, through the metaphor of poetry, he or she can agree or disagree with this particular interpretation and/or suggest his or her own meaning without imposing a truth value by remaining aware of the pragmatic consequences of differing interpretations.
The State’s actions provide us with three indexicals where we can start our interpretation: the military barracks, the shopping mall, and the public park. These objects are not merely what they are, but also semiotic markers. They occupy narratives within Turkish public memory and through their construction and destruction alter how Turkish people tell their story. Moreover, these three public spaces are the center of the controversy and their juxtaposition allows for the multitudes to glance at neoliberal fascism.
Indexicals, or deictic markers, refer to “words whose references must be determined from the context. Common deictic words fall into categories of person… place… and time” (Paul Gee, 2011, 8). Levinson (1983, 54) suggests that deictic markers are the most important ways by which we can connect the text with the context. The reason behind the translation of public spaces to poetic indexicals is, as mentioned in the introduction, to encourage deliberative space and to discourage—discursive—“war of position”, to reiterate Gramsci. Indexicals in poetry hide behind a shroud of ambiguity: “Besides the external plane of the author and the reader, there is another – that of the lyrical hero or fictional author, the “I” (who actually is not the author) the implicit receiver, “you” (who is not the reader)” (Merilai, 2001, 167). Such indexical ambiguity in poetry is useful to distract potential deliberators from a possible focus on fixed ideological positions and, consequently, encourage them to deliberate on the content.
The military barracks planned to be restored and rebuilt, were once demolished 19th Century Ottoman Army barracks. In this reading of poetry, historical questions and facts surrounding the barracks are of less significance than what army and the place of militarism signify in the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Following WWI, Turkey had a “War of Independence” between 1919-1923, in which a number of militias were organized into a single army and ruled from an assembled parliament. One of Turkey’s founding fathers, the founding father according to most, M. K. Atatürk was the head of the parliament as well as the commander in chief at the time of the war. While the relationship between military and politics goes back to the Ottoman era, it has also been quite prevalent in the short history of the Republic. Since its founding in 1923, and up until 2013, Turkey witnessed three coup d’états and two military memorandums. Based on its past tracing back to the Ottoman Empire and its role in the founding of the Republic, the military had a discursive basis within cultural narratives, in which it was acceptable to intervene within social and political life. The current government who has been in power since 2002, the AK Party, is credited with loosening and even getting rid of military’s grasp within social and political life through legislative reforms. However, the current social, economic, and political situation in Turkey demonstrate that AK Party simply replaced the military’s authoritarian grasp on the social/political with its own; thus, the militaristic, authoritative mindset still continues to rule the country. Police brutality against the protests is just one of many manifestations of this continuation—some others being the number of jailed/fired journalists, students, protestors, and Kurdish politicians as well as routine killings of the LGBTQ community and women.
This militaristic mindset is the breeding ground of fascist politics. And, in Turkey, fascist politics are not limited to an ethnocentric outlook; it is further gendered and ideologically exclusive. For this reason, I do not read the reconstruction of military barracks as a project of mere historical preservation. Rather, it is a symbol for continuation of the militaristic mindset and ongoing fascist political practices.
Shopping malls, “today’s temples”, in the words of stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are a global phenomenon. Izzard’s temple analogy is not inaccurate. Malls are places in which commodity fetishism is revered to its fullest. In a mall, the space is organized around brands and the place of a particular brand within the market. Those brands that have a larger market share take up more space and they get the prime spots, whereas brands that do not have the same value have to make do with smaller shops and spots that are less accessible. Moreover, shopping malls make certain assumptions about those who occupy its space, i.e. consumers, availability of spending power and time—important and limited resources. In addition to the zealous imposition of commodity fetishism and exclusive nature of who is permitted at that space, shopping malls are further classist in another way. Abaza (2001), for instance, argues that shopping malls completely transformed the spatial organization of Egypt, especially in Cairo. They reorganized the division of public space from retail space from living space, in part through gentrification. The State mobilized against the poor by invoking discourses that painted them as “violent” and “unruly.”
Shopping malls are places where global neoliberalism finds its local voice and assimilates local narratives and culture through classist exclusion and commodity fetishism within its own paradigm. Bearing this in mind, in Turkey’s case, I do not read the building of a shopping mall as providing a recreational space for the public. Rather, it redesigns public space from a classless public park to class-exclusive space that ignores the needs of the poor while redefining local values with neoliberal narratives.
Destruction of a public park has two main dimensions. First, the seizure of public space without public consent is where the State’s action becomes patriarchic. Second, it symbolizes the destruction of greenery for the sake of militarism plus consumerism. Morris (2010) defines “ideological rape” as “the brutal imposition of one person’s morality on an Other in such a way that the consequences for that Other are psychologically, spiritually, and/or emotionally damaging” (Morris 2010, page 477). The State’s act is a form of ideological rape in that it imposes its morality through police brutality. Its consequences are “psychologically, spiritually and/or emotionally damaging” to those deemed as the Other. Additionally, the State imposes its will on a public space without the consent of the public, believing it has every right to do so. This is presumed justified by the same patriarchic assumptions of what a man is entitled to do do/decide over a woman’s body.
Discussion and Conclusion
This article’s objective was to reimagine the events that took place in Turkey in the summer of 2013. Turning the context that sparked the movement into poetry allows for an interpretive space where different readings of the indexicals in the given poem could be understood by referring to different historical understandings. Sustaining the poetry metaphor to engage such events will encourage fluidity in interpretation instead of fixing the reproduced discourse on competitive ideologies.
The point of an interpretive reading, however, is its ambiguity. Through ambiguity, as it pertains to the author and the reader (Meriali, 2001), we can get past the possible roadblocks of argumentative positioning and deliberate on the content of interpretation. What matters, in the face of such ambiguity, is not the source of the message. While the source cannot be separate from the message itself, with ambiguity, the content acquires primacy over position. Ambiguous, perhaps anonymous, interpretation further—and rather hopefully—encourages cathartic expression and agency for participation
At this point, to offer the culmination of this particular reading of the poem, let us return to Baudelaire’s stanza:
“The Poet is a kinsman in the clouds
Who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day;
But on the ground, among the hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.”
Perhaps, in this stanza of The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire refers to the imagination as the wings that carry the poet to the sky. While the poet’s imagination can create immortal works of art, the same wings might also hinder her movement among mere mortals. Creativity, inspiration and art must be liberated in the cold and calculating Metropolis, a world built around efficiency.
Similarly, those who wish to keep the initial focus of the Gezi protests alive in Turkey need to create space for their and other’s wings, refrain from putting themselves in (or being put in) fixed ideological boxes. Those boxes not only serve the needs of the dominant power structure by giving it a clear target—both metaphorically and literally—to shoot at, it is also a constraint from which we cannot produce alternative narratives and end up reproducing the dominant ideological and discursive structures we are trying to challenge. In other words, we need escape Baudelarie’s dichotomy between the poet and the crowd, the ground and the sky. We need to be poets who can comfortably walk among the hooting crowd.
- Abaza, M. (2001). Shopping Malls, Consumer Culture and the Reshaping of Public Space in Egypt.Theory, Culture & Society (18) 5: 97-122
- Cutler, C. (2011). ‘The privatization of authority in the global political economy’, in G. Teeple & S. McBridge (eds.), Relations of Global Power: Neoliberal Order and Disorder, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Giroux, H. (2005). ‘The terror of neoliberalism: rethinking the significance of cultural politics’, College Literature. 32, 1: 1-19.
- Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Meriali, A. (2001). Poetic speech acts. A hypothesis of two contexts. Trames: Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2(5): 156-176
- Morris, R. (2010). The Scarlet Letter, Vigilantism, and the Politics of Sadism. In Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication. (Nakayama, T. K. & Halualani, R. T. eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell
- Paul Gee, J. (2011). How to do discourse analysis. Oxon, UK: Routledge.
- Woodley, D. (2013). Radical Right Discourse Contra State-Based Authoritarian Populism: Neoliberalism, Identity and Exclusion after the Crisis in Analyzing Fascist Discourse: European Fascism in Talk and Text. (Wodak, R. & Richardson, J. E., eds.). New York, NY: Routledge
Ali E. Erol is a professorial lecturer at American University, School of International Service. His research focuses on discourses of Turkish nationalism and of social movements. ✪